Syria's chemical weapons: why it could take decades to destroy them

If Russia's plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons goes through, it would be the beginning of a complicated and expensive process.

United media office of Arbeen/AP/File
Members of the UN team investigating claims of chemical weapons use in Syria take samples near Damascus in Ain Terma last month.

How would the world destroy Syria’s chemical weapons? There isn’t an easy answer to that question. Syria has an estimated 1,000 tons or more of mustard and nerve gas stored at various locations around the war-torn country. Identifying and securing these stocks amidst ferocious fighting could be a horrendously difficult task.

Furthermore, getting rid of poison gas is far from a matter of rolling drums into a pit and lighting a match.

As experts note, if the Russia-proposed deal for Syrian chemical destruction actually goes through, the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad would sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. It’s likely the UN Security Council would then pass a resolution establishing a special commission of personnel largely from the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to oversee the actual work.

The CWC does not allow chemical stocks to be burned in open pits, buried, or dumped at sea, according to the OPCW’s website.

That’s a change from the bad old days. From World War I through 1970, the US disposed of thousands of chemical munitions via ocean disposal, according to a 2007 Congressional Research Service study. In 1964, for instance, the US Army dumped into the Atlantic 1,700 75mm shells filled with mustard gas that had been stored at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. In August 1970, the US military disposed of 12,508 M55 sarin nerve agent rockets in the sea 250 miles east of Cape Kennedy, Florida.

“Although DOD [Department of Defense] has indicated that chemical weapons are no longer dumped in the ocean, much is unknown about the potential risks from the past disposal of such weapons still in the ocean today,” notes the CRS study.

The US experience shows that destruction is a lengthy and expensive process. It involves two alternative technologies: incineration or neutralization.

In the incineration process, as carried out at the just-closed Deseret Chemical Depot near Toole, Utah, robots first remove explosive components from munitions bodies. The explosives are chopped up and burned with natural gas at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit in a furnace.

Liquid agent is then drained from the shells or rockets. This is burned in a separate incinerator at 2,700 degrees. Gases and ash or other residue is rendered as clean as possible by various pollution controls.

Empty casings are melted in yet another furnace. Waste products are checked to ensure all chemical agent has been destroyed, then sent to hazardous waste landfills.

The US Newport Chemical Depot in Indiana, which closed in 2008, used neutralization to destroy nerve agent. This process involves carefully draining chemicals from drums or munitions, then thoroughly mixing it with heated sodium hydroxide and water to destroy its lethality. Containers are washed and heated via electrical induction to destroy any residues.

If the US experience is any guide, Syrian chemical weapons destruction could take years, or even decades. The US acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention 1997, with a deadline of 2012 for destruction of its estimated 31,000 tons of chemical agent.

Currently 89.75 percent of the stockpile has been destroyed, according to the US Army. The program is now scheduled to end in 2023. Public resistance to transport of chemical weapons led the US to destroy stocks in place, and technological problems proved greater than initially anticipated. Its total cost is now estimated at $35 billion. Doing the math, Time magazine’s Mark Thompson points out that this means chemical destruction cost the Pentagon about $5,000 per pound.

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